We are excited to share that past contributor Brooke Sahni has a book coming out this November! Before I Had the Word is a poetry collection that explores the confluences of religion and culture in the world. In the poems, Brooke draws on her backgrounds in Sikhism and Judaism to challenge our notions of the self and the divine. Nature, sexuality, and the body, plus the secular and mundane worlds, are thoughtfully questioned.
Before I Had the Word invites us to consider what is essential and what is sacred: language, the body, pleasure, faith. It invites us to consider who we are, how we inhabit ourselves, how words – “words that give and words that take away” – shape our experience. There are poems in this book that are etched in me now. Poems I’ll return to again and again. Poems I’ll teach. Poems I’ll share with my own daughter. This book is a gift.
Maggie Smith, Author of Keep Moving
Before I Had the Word is the 2020 winner of the X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize and is available for pre-order from Texas A&M University Press. Brooke contributed to our Issue 24 and is also the author of the poetry collection Divining. To learn more about Brooke, visit her website or Instagram. Congratulations, Brooke!
“Rabbi Meir said, anyone who engages in Torah study for its own sake (‘lishma’) merits many things”
We are always torn apart. Behind the face we present to the world, there is a fracture. Two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control, and the dread of disorder. These opposing states, so closely linked, cause us no small misery, but the dynamic is so much a part of our ingrained habit of thinking that we constantly try, though with little success, to smother it with all manner of distractions.
We frequently wake up early in the morning with a crashing, dawn-clarity in the form of the question: What can I do about some awful problem? What we are really asking above and behind this question, is “can this problem be contained or controlled?” And if not – if the problem can’t be mended – how do we live with our sense that by not resolving this difficulty, and by allowing it to stand shamelessly unresolved, life’s great promise of joy will unravel from its spool? Further refined, we can distill the question to its rock hard core: How do I live with pain, grief, anguish?
We have all encountered such moments. But nothing distresses the quest for control more than a crisis of health. The body lurks, waiting; it conceals sickness under skin, tissue and bone. Beneath the veil of our physical stability, a system bubbles toward disorder. My own crock boiled over when I was twenty-nine and diagnosed with cancer. At a time of life when people typically view mortality though a long lens, my death seemed more immediate. I had no resources to deal with the reality of death: therefore my responses were limited. My mind contracted under the idea of death. My notions were hedged by binary postures: fight, win, move on, or fight, lose, die.
Pressed in this vice, I ultimately found it most reassuring to learn to abandon the notion of continued life. This brought a measure of peace. Death is the ultimate negation – a blunt, inescapable fact. Somewhere on a cosmic script, the conclusion is written in indelible ink: you will die. So by embracing death, by laying down at its feet, I let go of the struggle against its oppressive strain. I was still bound to life, to be certain, but only by sheer threads.
In the first few years after surgeries and treatments, I devalued existence. This attitude worked under a certain set of narrow conditions. But as I expanded my horizons after the disease, this stance evolved into a crisis of conscience. How can we live without embracing life? Clinging to death is a poor long term-solution, for even after the cancer was in remission, there was still the fact that I might die at any moment. Death simmers inside of us. My unbending cheapening of life did not solve the problem of death – it merely postponed it. I had driven myself to the verge of an existential cliff. In order to continue to live, I had to change the mental formula that had been useful since I was diagnosed with cancer – because the thin gruel of indifference to life cannot sustain a flea.
If we face suffering, sickness, depression and death, we can turn to something well beyond us: religion. In the years following a great crisis, I turned to Judaism. But my reason for this move, I believe, veers very far from the common expectation. Religion did not provide me comfort. A Jewish life did not offer me hope of a healthy body as a reward for my virtuous actions, or the recompense of an enchanted afterlife beyond a bodily existence marked by pain and suffering; nor did I seek the protection of a powerful and providential deity who could answer my prayers.
On the contrary, Jewish practice catapulted me beyond the bounds of reward and punishment to a real “space” where my deeds are free from the expectation of reward. This is a crucial point: by practicing Judaism, I can relinquish control to the realm of pure Jewish action. In the language of Judaism I perform the mitzvoth, the Jewish religious requirements, not for any payoff, but, as is said in Hebrew lishma, for and in themselves. This perspective has steered my apathy and indifference into more disciplined channels.
I practice Judaism to practice it. This sounds like an echo, but the seeds of this practice produce sturdy foliage. With Jewish ritual practice detached from reward, I can pursue a goal without the restraints of expectation. My mind and heart practice Judaism’s ritual demands with detachment. Detachment, of course, has pejorative implications – a lack of caring, a stance of aloofness – but it can also emancipate; and in a paradoxical turn, the freedom of detachment can transform our indifference into a more vital, lasting form of care. And the practice of lishma, of doing a deed in and for itself, can be exercised everywhere. By living life lishma, the mind is freed from the stark habit of thinking that the two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control and the dread of disorder.
In lishma, we transcend the need to control the events of our lives. Order happens, disorder happens – they are states that come and go and we have no control over either. But no matter what happens, we perform our duty and live life. Our imperative to action is action itself. With patience and practice, even life’s gravest challenges and abrupt transformations become shaded in different hues. Events take on the color of the moment, rather than the stain of our anxiety for specious stability. When we are no longer distracted about the issue of control, we are able to free ourselves from the slavery of expectations. And by doing so, we are able to see ourselves in the light of the singular, precious instant.
I write with my fingers crossed. Because every time I write, I counter a cardinal point of the Judaism I practice and believe: that everything is one. That the reality we all experience — the very texture of this life we live, with its distinctions and sub-divisions, its segregations and partitions — is wrong.
I am a non-dual Jew: I do not conceive of God as a separable entity or force, somehow detached from the world and its multitudinous forms. Instead, God is the World, and the World is God and God is One. In Judaism’s most treasured statement of faith, which goes Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, we find the very script of this vision. God is One. Everything is One. Everything is God. This is a supremely mystical take on Judaism; it represents a minority voice in a religion that stresses the polarity between the sacred and the profane. When everything is one nothing is evil. When everything is one nothing is separate. When everything is one, the things we see in the world, and their manifest separate existence, is not true.
And here is the problem: this vision of uncompromising unity is the very antithesis of writing fiction. Writers broker in division and distinction. Writers take the elements of language and expression and reduce them to the most basic level. We must write one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one book at a time. This is a discreet enterprise, and it is based on the view of the wholly separable nature of reality. By contrast, the mystical view happens in a moment; it is the illuminating notion that everything can be absorbed in one overwhelming instant. Writing, instead, comes in drips. And one must digest it drop by drop. It is a discreet enterprise.
For the writer, to say that everything is one is to say not much at all. The statement reduces the very act of writing fiction to absurdity: words, sentences, paragraphs, characters, plots, and conflict become pantomime — mere reflections of a reflection. Writing becomes an illusion patterned after an illusion, which can be seen as basally unimportant. And here lies a problem that is worthy of great struggle.
To write fiction and be a non-dualist is to play two games that risk canceling each other out. So my aim is to play with great subtlety. In every story I write, I proceed as if the world is composed of wholly separable objects, often in conflict with each other, almost always nearly in direct contradiction to each other — while at the same time maintaining that this is a kind of illusion. The trick of upholding the illusion, no matter how dangerous or misleading, is critically important. The point is to suggest not just that this illusion plays a vital role in creating a compassionate Jew and a good human being, but to acknowledge that because the illusion is itself a part of the oneness of the world, even it has deep value.
Always, I hint in my writing that there is more to our life than the unsettled sense of a reality in conflict. Often on the level of language, in the composition of characters, and the sense of the plot, I allude that this is not all there is; that beyond what is being read, and far beyond what the characters strive for and seek, is a greater vision of unity that can be had only with great effort and dedication. Fiction itself may be capable of only inadequately displaying that unity, but it can get close enough to offer hints and suggestions. Inviting a reader to ponder the infinite edge of any story is the goal of my writing. I believe I have created a successful story when I am able to leave the reader silent at its end—momentarily aware of a vastness and connection and unity that can only exist when the words stop.
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